By Ian Katusiime
An army of apron-wearing girls continues delivering lunches to loyal customers even as 3000 cases are confirmed
Nasser Road in Kampala city; the hub of Uganda’s printing business is a thriving hive of activity. Inside crowded new buildings that spring up almost every other month along this stretch of just a few hundred metres, a work force of thousands feed endless tonnes of paper into countless hungry mini-printing presses, copiers, and design computers. Even at lunch time, business remains brisk and few of the men and women can afford to leave their workstations.
Instead, an army of apron-wearing girls make several rounds of lunch deliveries to loyal customers. Most of the patrons enjoy personal relations with those who provide them food if the nature of the banter between them is anything to go by.
Favourite meals are steaming hot matooke, a brown rice called pilau, and beef and chicken stew with sprinklings of either boiled beans gravy of groundnut sauce served on porcelain china plates and reusable cutlery. Popular drinks include various soda brands, and blended passion, mango, and orange juices.
It is not clear if these lunching patrons ever stop to think about the hygiene of the places where their daily meals come from. If they did, many would probably opt out of lunch.
Kampala city is on high alert for typhoid, a fever contracted from ingesting contaminated food or drink. It is caused by bacteria called salmonellae typhi, found in human stool and passed on through unhygienic handling of food and drinks. Up to 3000 cases had by mid-March been confirmed in the city by the ministry of Health.
Most the meals served on Nasser Road are prepared in an open air space behind the shop fronts. Makeshift structures of rickety sticks and plastic tarpaulins line the long stretch of a dusty earth road. There are about 50 stalls or more next to each other. Here, a mixture of smoke smells from burning charcoal, sizzling spices in hot cooking oils, frying chapattis and stewing gravies fills the air.
Just a plane below this stretch; where the food catering business has thrived for years, is a dumping site of sorts. A pile of garbage that grows by the day, littered with all sorts of debris from whatever the cooking stalls dispose of. There is wasted paper, decomposing food, unfinished orders, and everything surplus to requirements meets its way here. The dumpsite is part of land belonging to Uganda Railways Corporation, a mass of land that totals to about 10 acres.
A garbage truck filled to the brim that drives through the congested area picking up litter from wherever and letting off a revolting stench in the air is confirmation of Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) awareness of this place.
One can’t help noticing the layers of dust that rise in the air and get peppered on the food and cooking sauces. A few patrons brave the crowded hot kitchens and sit gingerly on tiny benches, either waiting to be served or enjoying their meal. There are few tables here. Some food plates end up on the dusty floor. Food here is affordable compared to the main street restaurant rates and business is brisk.
At one stall, a woman hurriedly swipes a plate that has just been used in not so clean water and dries it using a not so-clean looking rough towel. Then the plate is ready for another order. The spoons and forks get same treatment.
At another stall, a rather plump lady called Nalweyiso operates a bustling juice business. It has a fridge and a blending centre for almost all types of juices and appears to be the reference point for all thirst down here. Her business is staged at the entry of a dark alley just opposite the food stalls. It is dingy and evokes thoughts of the typhoid outbreak that has had scores hospitalised.
KCCA says the group of people operating these stalls are doing it illegally and they do not meet the bare minimum standards.
Food vendors hard to track
As Saziri Semakula, a KCCA Health Inspector explained, eating places should have designated eating areas, clean toilet facilities that are gender specific, and anyone involved in handling of food should be medically examined. The staff should have appropriate dressing; including a covering for their hair. None of these KCCA guidelines appear to have been followed here – or in any of numerous similar eating places all over the city. The question is why.
The KCCA Director of Physical Planning, Moses Atwiine, says these informal businesses are hard to track because they serve food to their people in cars and along the streets.
“Actually they operate at lunch time (only),” he says, ““So we can’t license them.”
However, the hygiene standards are no different in the licensed eateries. A random sampling of downtown Kampala restaurants in the city centre reveals dirty floors and tables littered with dropped food crumbs, used drinking straws, and dust. In one restaurant, famous for its pillau rice and run by a prominent city local council official, there are no nearby toilets.
Instead, patrons have to snake through a number of shops in the building before they can access them. Most of the eating places do not have running water. Instead, patrons wash hands in improvised basins. According to Atwiine, Kampala has a high water table and some of the facilities use untreated water from wells sunk under the building. KCCA blames this water for the current typhoid outbreak.
Atwiine says a formal restaurant should have a professional caterer and precision cleaning. He says basic guidelines include items such as what washing utensils should be in place.
“We issue operating licences to formal establishments. For one to get a license, they must be with proper lighting and electricity, proper ventilation,” he says.
He says, unfortunately, most food sellers in the city are not professional.
“These people just want to make a quick buck,” he says, “these people pick people they already know to employ in their businesses. They are basically unskilled.”
Laisser-faire attitude to health
Part of the problem also appears to be that KCCA’s operations kick on after there are numerous complaints from the public and when the situation is out of hand as opposed to random inspection from its enforcement officers. At one of the oldest eating places located at the junction of Jinja Road and Entebbe Road, there is a general feeling of calm around this restaurant which is patronised by elderly folk. The middle-aged manager proudly brandishes his KCCA licence.
We are standing next to an open sewer that run right inside the restaurant‘s sitting and dining area. Right in the middle of the restaurant is a huge tall mango tree whose leaves keep falling; sliding off the roof and dangling into the main eating area where a host of African dishes are served.
It is obviously unclear what assessment and criterion KCCA uses while granting some of its licenses. In conversation, one of the patrons tells me that he and his friends have been coming here for years and is unfazed by the low standards of hygiene. This laisser-faire attitude to health is to be found all over the city.
Semakula; the KCCA Hygiene boss says this is a big problem.
“We carry out routine inspections,” he says, “but the issue of the hygiene is ultimately an issue of the restaurants”.
He points of that they have closed a few high profile places that failed to meet standards.
“We first serve them notices if we find the situation is totally out of hand and tell them to rectify issues immediately. If they persist, we suspend the business,” he says.
He says, however, there is a tendency of most businesses in Kampala to become complacent after they have been around for some time.
“Of course we cannot oversee every other place 24/7 but the truth is we are never in offices; we are always out there doing our work.”
Semakula and his team are possibly out there working, but unless they intensify their operations, Kampala might experience something worse than typhoid.